As important as it is to accept a movie on its own terms, those terms have to make sense. Battleship is the kind of movie you feel dumber after watching, if only because you expended energy trying to figure out its terms, only to discover there are none present at all. Peter Berg, who earned lifetime benefit of the doubt for The Rundown, has crafted a well-meaning but half-witted wannabe blockbuster that somehow over-explains everything without saying anything at all, much less making a damn lick of sense. About as thoughtful and complex as one might expect of a movie based on a board game, Battleship is the sort of summer movie that’s so dumb and unengaging that it scuttles audience expectations for the entire movie season.
Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) plays Alex Hopper, a perennial screwup whose older brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) enlists him in the Navy after he’s detained while breaking into a convenience store to retrieve a chicken burrito for Sam (Brooklyn Decker), the supermodel of his dreams. Despite inexplicably failing upward into a position of authority, Alex manages to undermine any progress he makes by causing trouble or getting into fights with other officers, especially Captain Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano). Destined for dishonorable discharge, Alex glumly embarks on what may be his final naval exercises, but before they’re finished, his ship and two others run across an alien vessel in the water that unleashes a force field separating them from their fleet and surrounding the Hawaiian islands.
After the vessel opens fire, two of the ships are destroyed, and as the senior officer, Alex is put in charge. But when he begins to uncover the aliens’ plan to contact their extraterrestrial buddies and bring them in to dominate Earth, the fledgling officer is forced to recognize the responsibility that’s placed upon him and become the leader he was born to become.
Hero’s journeys are not just a mainstay of action movies, they’re great storytelling devices and a great way for audiences to vicariously fantasize about what they might be capable of if subjected to unexpected circumstances or extreme pressure. But the Number One rule of a hero’s journey is make your hero a character that people want to care about, and Berg roundly fails at this essential task by spending 30 minutes of the movie undermining Alex’s admirable qualities with an indefatigable series of obstinate, idiotic and just plain bad decisions. By the time Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson) observes that he has “more potential than any recruit I’ve ever seen,” or something to that effect, Alex has been arrested, blew a soccer game, shown up late at a Navy event presided over by the man whose daughter he’s asking to marry, and gotten into a fight with a superior officer. If military service teaches you anything, it’s discipline, but Alex has no maturity or self-control whatsoever, and the movie depicts his years of service like they’re high school courses he mostly skipped because they were too easy for him.
Meanwhile, the movie loses as many points as it gains for ably interpolating the randomness of the Battleship board game into the mythology of the film. After the aliens throw up their impenetrable force field (outside of which the government literally has no idea what to do, and essentially does nothing but hope the people inside are doing something), for some reason everyone’s radar becomes inoperable, and the aliens’ ships are capable only of leapfrogging around in the water, but not flying. Keep in mind that these are extraterrestrials who successfully traveled billions of miles through space to answer the call of a satellite transmission sent from Earth – so it seems feasible that their flight technology would be sophisticated enough that they could hover, much less fly around. Consequently, the humans and aliens engage in a cat-and-mouse game in which the sea becomes a massive grid where they fire blindly at one another (“quadrant E-4,” et cetera) until they get a hit.
But the movie games (no pun intended) this conflict so egregiously in the humans’ favor that it actually feels offensive to the nominal intelligence demanded by films of this size and scope. The aliens literally refuse to engage an adversary except when they perceive an attack against them, so when a warship changes course and sails away – even if it was just launching rockets in their direction – they perceive no threat and discontinue their counterattack. Meanwhile, the alien foot soldiers are physically imposing but their weaknesses (which I won’t spoil) make them only slightly less vulnerable than the extraterrestrials in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, who invaded Earth despite 70 percent of its surface being covered by their biggest weakness, water.
Perhaps most egregiously, it’s the kind of opus I call a bottle blockbuster, a movie whose astronomical budget pays for three or four key locations but never achieves the kind of scope demanded of say, a story about a planetary invasion. While there are a handful of establishing shots of alien vessels crash landing on Earth, few of them exert a significant human toll, as if even their accidental landings were carefully choreographed to minimize human casualties. (Compare this to the final hour of The Avengers, in which New York is effectively leveled by alien attack, but the unpredictability of the carnage provides some genuine surprise – and suspense – at what might happen to innocents caught in the crossfire.) Otherwise, virtually all of the action takes place on the deck or in the bowels of one of the “blah blah class destroyers” (which is how they repeatedly describe the ships), or in a handful of other destinations (such as a Hawaiian mountainside) which makes the audience feel like it’s really only our cast who’s fighting off an entire invasion. The “bigger picture” feels incidental, which is catastrophic even for a movie which was almost always going to champion American imperialism.
As much potential as Taylor Kitsch has as an actor, it remains largely untapped as he moves towards lead roles in this and John Carter. He simply doesn’t yet have the ability to play incompetent and headstrong in a way that’s also sympathetic, or perhaps more importantly, command a movie (much less a battleship) with so many moving parts. Never having seen his work on True Blood, Skarsgard fails similarly to impress except as a walking fount of exposition, reminding Kitsch’s character (and the audience) of the potential he’s squandering, and every character detail that he has to develop or work out through the course of the film. Meanwhile, in her first screen role, Rihanna gives as good of a performance as might be possible for a character who has few defining qualities other than “woman” and “soldier,” and Brooklyn Decker is overshadowed in her small but not charm-free role by Gregory Gadson, a real veteran whose artificial legs unfortunately give a more believable performance than he does.
As a movie that pays homage to the military by arguing that the government is incompetent, Battleship has its heart in the right place while managing to possess no brains at all. It’s the kind of “great on paper” project that includes opportunities for real soldiers to stand alongside the actors and show their stuff, but those opportunities are contextualized in sequences that aren’t just highly improbable but logistically impossible – as cool as it might be to see a disabled veteran break an alien over his prosthetic knee. Peter Berg’s reach has exceeded his grasp in the sphere of summer blockbusters, achieving entertainment that’s occasionally clever instead of consistently smart, and not even captivating in the abusive, counterintuitive way that Michael Bay’s movies bludgeon viewers into submission. Ultimately, Battleship is simply bereft of any qualities that make it special, distinctive or entertaining -- which is why the only terms under which it’s enjoyable are unconditional surrender.